Recipe for Express Configuration Files

2014-01-02 00:00:00 +0000 by Alex R. Young

Express has a few helper methods that support configuration. There are three pairs of methods: get and set for setting values, enable and disable for toggling boolean options, and enabled and disabled for testing boolean options. Options can be set based on the current environment by using the configure method.

Here's an example of these methods:

var express = require('express');
var app = express();
var assert = require('assert');

app.set('title', 'DailyJS');
assert.equal(app.get('title'), 'DailyJS');

app.configure('production', 'staging', function() {
  // 'emails' is an internal setting I've made up
  // It could be used to only send emails from certain environments

app.configure('test', function() {

The configure method is based on process.env.NODE_ENV, which is available in app.get('env'). If you access it through app.get you'll see a default of 'development' rather than undefined. When you deploy your application you'll want to make sure the NODE_ENV environmental variable is set to staging or production. How this is done is based on operating system or cloud provider -- with Heroku it would be heroku config:add NODE_ENV=production.

These methods are useful, but sometimes you want to store settings in configuration files. It depends on the type of project you're working on, but most of the commercial projects I've worked on required configuration files.

I use JSON as the format for these files because it's easy to write and parse in Node projects. You don't even need to use JSON.parse, you can just use require. I like to use a configuration file for each environment, so I usually end up with a directory like this:


You can load one of these files with require('config/development.json'), but you can go a step further by using an index.js file:

module.exports = {
  development: require('./development.json'),
  production: require('./production.json'),
  test: require('./test.json')

Now you can use var config = require('./config') elsewhere in your project. However, because process.env.NODE_ENV gets set, we can simplify that index.js file even further:

module.exports = require('./' + (process.env.NODE_ENV || 'development') + '.json');

Now require('./config') will return an object that contains the configuration for the current environment. I use this to do things like turn off AWS emails in my unit tests, but leave them on for the production system. By exploiting the design of Node's module system you basically get configuration files for free.

This might not be the best solution for every project. The config module by Loren West supports YAML files, and nconf from flatiron is hierarchical -- settings can be passed in as command-line options, from the environment, or from a file, and used based on precedence. It can also store settings in databases like Redis.

How do you configure your Express projects?